VI. Ab'm's Birthday Party
 

The robbers were caught, and were lodged in the county jail, and all the farmers who had hen-roosts robbed, and the farmers' wives who had their doughnuts stolen, kept coming over to the little brown house or stopping Mrs. Pepper after church on Sunday to thank her for what her boy had done, until it got so that when Joel saw a bonnet coming along the dusty road, or a wagon stop in front, he would run and hide.

"I won't have 'em put their hands on my head and call me good boy," he cried, shaking his black hair viciously. "I'll kick 'em--so there!" So one day, when he caught sight of a wagon just about to stop, he ran, as usual, as fast as he could, off over to Grandma Bascom's.

"Now that's too bad," said a big tall woman, who got out of the wagon and made her way up to the door, "for Mis' Beebe said in partic'ler I was to bring Joel, an' he ain't to home."

"Go and call him, Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, "Come in, won't you, and sit down?"

Phronsie tried to drag forward a chair, while Polly ran out the back door, calling, "Joel--Joel!"

"Bless her heart!" exclaimed the visitor, looking at Phronsie. "No, I can't set; I've got to keep an eye on that horse." As Mr. Beebe, who ran the little shoe shop up in the town, owned a horse that nothing but a whip could make go, this seemed unnecessary. However, Mrs. Pepper only smiled hospitably, while the woman went on.

"You see, I've only jest about come, as 'twere, on from the West, an' bein' my boy's got a birthday, an' him bein' grandson, as you may say, to Mis' Beebe, she thought she'd give him a party."

"Oh, are you Mr. Beebe's daughter?" asked Mrs. Pepper, in perplexity. "I thought the old people hadn't any children."

"No more'n they hain't," said the visitor, leaning composedly against the door jamb and keeping her eye on the horse; "but as you may say, Ab'm's their grandson, for my husband's mother was sister to Mis' Beebe, an' she's dead, so you see it's next o' kin, an' it comes in handy to call her Grandma."

"Oh, yes," said Mrs. Pepper.

"Well, an' so Mis' Beebe's goin' to give Ab'm a party. La! she's been a-bakin' doughnuts all this mornin', got up at four o'clock an' begun 'em. I never see such sugary ones. They're sights, I tell you."

Polly now ran in. "I can't find Joel, Mamsie," she said sadly.

"Well, Mis' Beebe said I was to bring him most partic'ler; she'd rather see him than any of the rest o' you. She said, 'Marinthy, be sure to bring that boy who was so brave about them robbers. Tell him I've made some doughnuts special for him.'"

"O dear!" exclaimed Polly, clasping her hands, "whatever can we do, Mamsie, to find him?"

"You must not wait any longer," said Mrs. Pepper, remembering how, the day before, Joel, had run down to the brook, and been gone for hours, following along its course, never coming home till dinner-time. "Get Phronsie ready, and Davie and yourself. But I'm sorry for Joey to lose the treat," she said sadly.

"So'm I," said Abram's mother, "an' Mis' Beebe'll feel dreadful bad. Well, I'm afraid that horse'll start, so I'll get in, an' you can all come out when you get ready."

Pretty soon Polly emerged from the bedroom with a sad look on her rosy face, and her brown eyes drooped as she led Phronsie along as fresh and sweet as a rose, all ready.

"Tisn't nice a bit to go without Joel, Mamsie," said Polly, disconsolately.

"You can't help it, Polly," replied her mother, "and it won't do to keep Abram's mother waiting. So go on, and take care of the children, and see that they behave nicely. And don't let Phronsie eat more than one doughnut. And be careful to tie the shawl over her when she comes home."

"I'll remember, Mamsie," said Polly, and wishing there wasn't such a thing in the world as a party, she put Phronsie into the wagon, and climbed up beside her. Davie, with a very sober face at thought of leaving Joel behind, craned his neck and watched for him as long as the little brown house was in sight.

"You see," said Abram's mother, twitching the reins, when at last the old horse decided to start, "I had to hurry away an' get in. I sh'd a-liked to a' set an' passed the time o' day longer with your Ma, but I didn't darst to. It's dretful to have a horse run. I couldn't never a-catched him in all this world, stout as I be. Land! I hain't run a step for ten years, 'cept last spring I was to Sister Jane's, an' her cow took after me, an' I had to."

"O dear," breathed Phronsie, turning her face up as she sat squeezed in between Abram's mother and Polly, "did he hurt you?"

"Bless your heart!" exclaimed the woman, beaming at her, "no, for he didn't catch me. You see I had on a red shawl, an' the critter didn't like it."

"Oh!" said Phronsie.

"No; sho there, easy, you!" cried Abram's mother, holding the old leather reins as tightly as possible, and bracing back; "I guess he won't run, bein's I'm so strong in my hands. Well, you see Jane she hollered out o' th' window, 'Throw away your shawl, M'rinthy, he'll kill you.'"

"O dear me!" exclaimed Phronsie. "An' did he kill you, Mrs. Big Woman?" she asked anxiously.

"No; why here I be," said Abram's mother, with a hearty laugh. "Well, how could I throw off my shawl an' me a-runnin' so, an' 'twas all pinned across me, an' my brother'd brought it from over seas. So I had to run."

Phronsie sighed, and kept her troubled eyes raised to the big face above her.

"An" the first thing't ever I knew, I went down kerslump into a big compost heap, an'--"

"What's a compost heap?" asked Davie, getting up to stand in the wagon back of them.

"Oh, manure an' sich, all gone to rot," said Abram's mother.

"O dear me!" said Davie.

"An' that cow--'twas a bull, I forgot to tell you, Jane's husban' told me afterwards--he kept right on over my head, couldn't stop, you know, an' he went bang up against a tree on t'other side, an' it knocked him flat."

"Did it hurt him?" asked Phronsie, in a sorry tone.

"I s'pose so," said Abram's mother, "for he didn't know nothin', an' th' men folks came who'd seen me runnin' an' heard Jane hollerin' an' took him off before he came to, which he did after a spell, as lively as a cricket. An' they dragged me up, more dead'n alive, an' I hain't run a step since."

Phronsie drew a long breath of relief that no one was killed. Davie gazed at Abram's mother in great satisfaction. "Tell us some more," he said.

"An' I might as well have flung off that red shawl," she went on, ignoring his request, "if I could a' got out that pin, for it was all smutched up, fallin' in that mess, an' I couldn't put it on my back. It beats all how you never know what's best to do; but then, says I, you've no call to worry afterwards, if you decide in a hurry. Sho now, go easy, you!" And at last they drew up at Mrs. Beebe's door.

There she stood in the doorway, in a cap with new pink ribbons, and old Mr. Beebe just a little back, smiling and rubbing his hands, and in the little window where the shoes and rubbers and slippers were hanging was a big round face plastered up against the small panes of glass.

"There's Ab'm, now," exclaimed his mother, proudly. "I guess when you see him you'll say there never was sech a boy. Well, I'm glad we're here safe an' sound, an' this horse hain't run nor nothin'. Now, hop out,"--which injunction was not needed.

Good Mrs. Beebe ran her eye over the little bunch of Peppers as they jumped down over the wheel. "Why, where's Joel?" she cried. "In the bottom o' th' wagon, I s'pose," she added, laughing and shaking her fat sides.

"Yes, where's Joel?" cried Mr. Beebe, rubbing his hands together harder than ever. "I want him to tell me all about how he ketched them robbers."

Polly was just going to tell all about Joel, and why he couldn't come, when the big woman shouted out, "They couldn't find him, for he warn't to home."

"Sho, now, that's too bad!" ejaculated Mr. Beebe, dreadfully disappointed. Mrs. Beebe already had Phronsie in her arms, and was whispering to her some of the delights to come. "Well, well, well, come right in, all of you, and make yourselves to home. I'll take care of the horse, Marinthy; go in an' set down."

"I'm sure I'm glad to," said Marinthy, getting over the little steps quickly after the Pepper children, and nearly knocking down David, who came last. "Ab'm, come here an' make your manners," she called. Ab'm got down from the pile of boxes where he had been looking out of the window, and slouched forward, his finger in his mouth.

"Speak up pretty, now," said his mother, pulling his jacket down with a twitch, and looking at him admiringly; "these children's come to your party. Say how do you do, an' you're glad to see 'em."

"How do you do, an' you're glad to see 'em--"

"Land sakes alive!" cried his mother, with a shake; "hain't you no more manners'n that? Do say it right."

"You told me to say it so," said Ab'm, doggedly.

"No, I didn't," retorted his mother with another shake. The little bunch of Peppers turned quite pale, and scarcely breathed.

"Did anybody ever see sech a boy, an' he that's had no pains spared 'n his bringin' up? Well, he's ten to-day, thank fortune, an' he'll soon be a-takin' care o' himself."

Phronsie crept closer to Polly. "Take me home," she said. "I want my Mammy."

"O dear me," thought Polly, "whatever shall I do! It will make dear Mr. and Mrs. Beebe feel so badly if I don't stop her. Phronsie," and she drew her off one side of the shop, old Mrs. Beebe having gone into the inner room, "you know Mamsie told us all to be good."

"Yes," said Phronsie, her lips quivering, and the tears beginning to come in her blue eyes.

"Well, it would just about make dear Mrs. Beebe and dear Mr. Beebe sick to have you feel badly and go home."

"Would it?" asked Phronsie, swallowing hard.

"Yes," said Polly, decidedly, "it would. People never go to a party, and then say they must go home."

"Don't they, Polly?" asked the little girl.

"No," said Polly, decidedly, "I never heard of such a thing. And just think, Phronsie Pepper, how Mamsie would look! Oh, you can't mean to be a naughty girl."

"I--won't--be a naughty--girl, Polly," promised Phronsie, battling with her tears, "an' I won't look at the big woman, nor the boy. Then I'll stay."

So Polly kissed her, and pretty soon Mrs. Beebe bustled in, her round face quite red with the exertions she had been making, and Mr. Beebe having seen to his horse, came in rubbing his hands worse than ever, saying, "Now, if we only had Joel, we'd be all right."

"Now, my dears,"--began Mrs. Beebe. "Why, you haven't laid off your things yet!" to the Peppers.

"No'm," said Polly, "but we will now, thank you, Mrs. Beebe," and she untied Phronsie's sun-bonnet and took off the shawl, David putting his cap down on the counter, keeping a sharp, disapproving eye on Ab'm every minute.

"When are you coming for a new pair of shoes?" whispered Mr. Beebe, getting hold of Phronsie and lifting her to his knee.

Phronsie thrust out her little foot. "See," she cried gleefully, forgetting for a moment the big woman and the boy, "dear, nice Mr. Beebe, they're all here." Then she poked out the other foot. "I buttoned 'em up all myself."

"No?" cried Mr. Beebe, greatly delighted; "well, now, when those are worn out, you come and see me again, will you?"

"They aren't ever going to be worn out," said Phronsie, positively, and shaking her head.

"Hoh, hoh!" laughed Ab'm, suddenly finding his tongue, "your shoes ain't never goin' to wear out! Ma, did you hear her?"

Phronsie started and hid her face on Mr. Beebe's fat shoulder. Polly hurried to her side.

"Be still!" cried his mother; "hain't you no manners, an' they're company? Ab'm Bennett, I'm ashamed of ye." With that she leaned over and gave him a box on the ear.

It was perfectly dreadful, and Polly had all she could do to keep from bursting out crying. And what they would have done, no one knows, if Mrs. Beebe hadn't said, "Won't you all walk out into the parlor an' set down to the table? Come, Pa, you lead with Phronsie."

"Ab'm oughter," said his mother; "that's style, seein' th' party's fer his birthday."

"Well, you go first then, Marinthy," said old Mr. Beebe, dryly, "with him, an' Phronsie an' I'll foller on. Now then, my dear." He set her on the floor, and bent his old white head down to smile into her face reassuringly, while her trembling fingers held his hand fast.

"Polly," said little David, as they brought up the rear of the procession, "I am so very much afraid of that boy."

"The party will soon be through," said Polly, encouragingly. "I'm so glad that Joel isn't here, for he'd say something, I'm afraid, if Ab'm scares Phronsie again," and she gave a sigh of relief.

Oh, the table! There were doughnuts, sure enough, as Mrs. Marinthy had said, "The biggest I ever see, and the sugariest." No wonder good Mrs. Beebe got up at four o'clock to make them! And a great dish of pink and white sticks and cunning little biscuits with real butter on them, and a cake, with little round candies sprinkled all over the top. Was there ever such a beautiful birthday party!

Phronsie, clinging to good Mr. Beebe's hand, thought not, and her glances wandered all up and down in delight, to bring her eyes at last up to Polly's brown ones, when her little face broke into a happy smile. Ab'm was so intent on choosing which of the pink and white sticks he should pick for, that he could think of nothing else, so Mrs. Beebe got them all seated without any further trouble. Old Mr. Beebe was just saying, "Now, if Joel was only here, we'd be all right," when the shop door opened suddenly, and into the little parlor ran Joel, very red in the face.

"Now that's nice enough," cried Mrs. Beebe, getting out of her chair, her pink cap-ribbons all in a flutter, while old Mr. Beebe exclaimed, with a beaming face, "Well, I declare! ef I ain't glad to see you. Set right down by me."

"No, he'll set here, Pa," said Mrs. Beebe, pushing up the chair next to Ab'm; "there's more room this side." So Joel marched up and got into his seat.

"An' so you thought you'd come," said Mr. Beebe, with a jolly little laugh. "Now we'll have fine times, won't we, Phronsie?" patting her hand. "How'd you git here?"

"I walked," said Joel, who couldn't for his life keep his eyes from the doughnuts, "'cept when I met a man with a load of hay. An' he was so slow I got down again, for I was afraid I'd miss the party."

"Hee, hee, hee!" chuckled Mr. Beebe; "well, wife, do give Joel a doughnut; he must be tired, a-comin' so far."

"Oh, thank you," cried Joel, thrusting out his hand eagerly.

"'Tain't style, where I come from out West, to help the doughnuts first, an' specially when that boy's just come," said Mrs. Marinthy, with a great air.

Joel dropped his doughnut to his plate as if it had been a hot cake, and leaned over to fasten his black eyes on her big face. "Well, pass the biscuits, do, then," said old Mr. Beebe, good-naturedly; "let's get somethin' a-goin', Ma." So the little biscuits were passed, but Joel did not take one; he still sat regarding Ab'm's mother.

"Ma, Ma," said Ab'm in a loud whisper, and twitching her elbow, "this strange boy's a-lookin' at you all the time. Make him stop, do."

At this Phronsie gave a little cry. "Don't let 'em hurt Joey," she gasped, turning to Mr. Beebe.

"There shan't nothin' hurt Joel, don't you be afraid," he whispered back.

"Hoh, hoh!" cried Ab'm, pointing a big fat finger at her, that might have been cleaner; "hear her now. An' she said her shoes warn't never goin' to wear out. Hoh, hoh!"

"You let our Phronsie alone," screamed Joel, tearing his black eyes off from Mrs. Marinthy's face to fasten them on her son. "Ow! he pinched me," roared Ab'm, edging suddenly off to his mother.

"I didn't," cried Joel, stoutly; "I did't touch him a single bit! But he shan't scare Phronsie, or I'll pitch into him. Yes, sir-ree!"

"Joel!" cried Polly, in great distress, across the table.

"Well, he shan't scare Phronsie," cried Joel, "this boy shan't, or I will pitch into him," and his black eyes blazed, and he doubled up his little brown fists.

"Joel," commanded Polly, "do you stop, this very minute," and, "Oh, sir!" looking up at Mr. Beebe, and, "Oh, marm!" and her brown eyes were fixed imploringly on Mrs. Beebe's round countenance, "I do feel so ashamed, and Mamsie will be so sorry. But please will you let us go home?" And poor Polly could say no more.

"An' I sh'd think you'd better go home," said Ab'm's mother, with asperity; "a-comin' to a birthday party and abusin' the boy it's give for. I never see th' like. An' to think how I driv' you clear over here, an' that horse most runnin' away all the time."

Polly got out of her chair and sorrowfully went up to Joel. "We'll sit out in the shop, if you please, dear Mr. and Mrs. Beebe, till you get through the party. And then, if you please, we'd like to go home." Joel's head dropped, and his little brown fists fell down. "I'm sorry," he mumbled.

Mrs. Beebe picked off the biggest pink stick from the pile on the dish and slid it on Joel's plate. "Eat that," she whispered. "Ab'm's goin' home in a week, an' then, says I, you shall come over an' visit with me." And Mr. Beebe looked over at him and nodded his white head, and Joel was quite sure he winked pleasantly at him. But the pink stick and doughnut lay quite untouched on his plate, and after a time, Polly having crept back to her seat, the biscuits had been passed around again, and the grand cake with the candies on top had been cut, the pink and white sticks were divided, and the doughnuts went up and down the table, and lo and behold! the party was over.

"I've had a birthday party," said Ab'm, with great satisfaction, sliding out of his chair with a black look for Joel, and stuffing what he couldn't eat into his pocket.

"You come with me," said Mrs. Beebe to Joel, "and let the others go back into the shop." So he followed her into a little entry, and out of that opened a cupboard.

"Now there's a paper bag up on that shelf," said Mrs. Beebe. "You can climb up and git it; that's right. Now, says I." She waddled back to the supper table. "Come here, Joel, my boy, and hold it open there and there." In went the biggest doughnuts that were left, some little biscuits, several pieces of the fine cake, and last of all, three or four pink and white sticks.

"You tell your Ma," said Mrs. Beebe, speaking very soft, "that Mr. Beebe an' me thinks a sight o' you, an' that you're a-comin' out here to spend the day just as soon as Ab'm goes. Now remember."

"Yes'm, I will," said Joel, twisting up his bag. "An' I'll come, Mrs. Beebe, if Mamsie'll let me."

"An' take care the things don't fall out," warned Mrs. Beebe.

Joel gave the bag another twist, and gripped it fast.

"An' I guess Pa's got the horse around all right," said Mrs. Beebe, going out into the shop, "so I s'pose you all must go, though sorry I be to have you." She gave Polly a motherly little pat on the shoulder, and fairly cried over Phronsie. "Well, you've got to go, I s'pose," she said again, "'cause Pa's a-waitin'; yes, Pa," she called, "they're a-comin'." And presently the little Peppers, except Phronsie, all clambered over the wheel; then Polly and Joel lifted her up, and away they went, Mrs. Beebe watching them off till a turn of the narrow street hid them from view.

"That Ab'm," said Mr. Beebe, after they had gone quite a piece, and glancing back over his shoulder, "well, he ain't reelly no kin to us, thank the Lord, an' they're a-goin' next week. I can tell you one thing, Polly, he an' his Ma don't git inside our house agin."